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Utopian Discourses Across Cultures

Scenarios in Effective Communication to Citizens and Corporations

Edited By Miriam Bait, Marina Brambilla and Valentina Crestani

The term Utopia, coined by Thomas More in 1516, contains an inherent semantic ambiguity: it could be read as eu topos (good place) or ou topos (no place). The authors of this volume analyze this polysemous notion and its fascination for scholars across the centuries, who have developed a variety of visions and ways to explain the «realization» of utopian discourses. The experts in the fields of sociology, political science, economics, computer science, literature and linguistics offer extensive studies about how utopian scenarios are realized in different cultural contexts.

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The United Kingdom Is(a)land of Utopia: Self-representation of City Councils and Communicative Strategies towards Citizens

← 12 | 13 →

Miriam Bait

The United Kingdom Is(a)land of Utopia: Self-Representation of City Councils and Communicative Strategies towards Citizens

1.  Introduction

The concept of utopia has always been associated with a place, a territory, a confined space in which the utopia is realized. And once its boundaries have been overstepped, it could become universal. Utopia inevitably references a social ideal and offers a model of coexistence, imagining how men should or could organize their lives.

A utopian model of society and the institutions upon which this society should stand becomes visible in the communicative acts through which public administrations speak about themselves. While the great literary utopias of the past seem to have faded into the background, they reemerge in today’s institutional communication.

The utopia that I will try to outline in these pages is, in fact, a contemporary utopia, one concerning “public communication,” an expression that may sound like an oxymoron, especially for historical reasons, since institutions and governments have generally not been known for excelling in their communication with the public.

But the profound transformation that has taken place in recent decades in western public administrations has greatly influenced the ways in which public bodies can communicate with and thus relate to the citizens they serve. At the center of what has been called “new public management”, “entrepreneurial Government”, or “neo-managerialism” (Hackney and McBride 1995; Terry 1998) is the adoption of good management and, above all, effective marketing strategies focused on the needs of the community. This increasingly business-like orientation, both in terms of practices and of discursive strategies, addresses citizens who are no longer considered to be simple users, but rather stakeholders and customers to keep satisfied.

2.  Background and aims

The utopia of the contemporary city becomes a common city project, an opportunity and a means of social change to be built upon the basis of joint decisions. ← 13 | 14 →

In this dynamic of change, new technologies have played a key role and have radically changed the modes of interaction between public agencies and companies, as well as the ways in which institutions can relate to citizens, as they not only help to implement the self-representation of institutions for propaganda purposes, but encourage participation, the creation of networks and, ultimately, greater democratization and better governance (Wilhelm 2000; Coleman 2001; West 2004; Karakaya 2005).

The institution or, in this analysis, the municipality, becomes visible and is forced to submit, consciously and strategically, its realistic (or utopian) vision of the city, a socio-political transposition of the utopian ideal, of imaginary and literary places. The result is a continuous (electronic) democracy based on the discussion, the recruitment and the aggregation of collective energies through the web.

The Internet has potentially disintermediated most of the informational actions between institutions and citizens. Informing is not enough: the actions of institutions should be supported by marketing and communication strategies to guide the customer / user towards their own structure by sharing their own point of view with them, and at the same time impacting the guidelines and perception of what institutions are and what they are doing. Online presence “help[s] build an image, foster an identity, drive social and economic development, and fortify the cohesion of a local community” (Jeffres and Lin 2006: 957). The unique nature of online discourse transforms Habermas’ notion of the public sphere (Habermas: 2006) into a revived version, a sphere where public opinion and consensus are formed through communicative action, thus paving the road for a democratic utopia, “a discursive arena that is home to citizen debate, deliberation, agreement and action” (Villa 1992: 712).

3.  Data and methodology

In order to investigate how strategic objectives deployed by institutions are discursively represented, I have selected the websites of four cities or district councils in the United Kingdom (UK) for the purposes of comparison (Chichester, Exeter, Leicester, Norwich)1. Texts describing the institutions’ present commitment (e.g. mission statement) and future plans (e.g. vision statement) were taken from the respective websites and stored on a computer to provide text file formats for the current analysis, yielding an entire dataset of approximately 150,000 words. ← 14 | 15 → Sections labelled as “mission statements”, as well as other similar sections under different headings such as such as “vision”, “aims”, “priorities”, “business responsibilities”, “values”, and so forth have been taken into consideration. These texts were examined to identify possible common traits which may provide evidence of an ideal collective identity to be constructed with the help of different subjects (public authorities and citizens).

The number of words per individual dataset is shown in the following table:

Table 1: Number of words per dataset

City or District CouncilNumber of Words
Chichester32,880
Exeter33,417
Leicester25,821
Norwich53,062

The methodological approach I use draws on principles and analytical tools from the tradition of discourse analysis. Particular attention is given to linguistic features such as evaluative language (Hunston and Thompson 2001) and specific lexical choices revealing a contamination between two different domains (private and public), thus outlining a dual vision of utopia, based on the principles of justice and equality, but promoted as making use of market-oriented strategies.

4.  The place of utopia: discursive strategies and linguistic features

The British websites examined in this study display a range of different textual genres. In the context of the kind of strategic communication that was a prerogative of businesses and private organizations in the past, these genres refer to the mission of institutions (Bait 2008, 2009). Terms like vision, values, aims, priorities or business responsibilities are very common, as we can see in the following examples:

Extending horizons for the whole community. Our vision is quite simply: to improve the lives of those in our community, and to maintain and enhance the environment. Our values are what govern us as an organisation and we as people serving the community and by values we mean being responsive, open, fair, supportive, caring. (Chichester District Council) ← 15 | 16 →

Our city, Our Future. We want to maintain and build upon Exeter’s position as a regional capital and work with all sectors of the local community to provide a healthy, prosperous and safe place for people to live, work and visit. (Exeter City Council)

Making Leicester more attractive for our diverse communities to live, work and invest in. Our values are: building trust, valuing staff, cultivating leadership and delivering quality. (Leicester City Council)

Putting the city and its people first. Everything we ever do as an organisation, whether in teams or as individuals, will be done with our core values in mind: Pride, Accountability, Collaboration, Excellence. (Norwich City Council)

These extracts clarify the intentions of the institutions to depict themselves as actors for change and as efficient service-providers, capable of responding to the needs of citizens and ensuring their satisfaction:

[…] a leading authority, a trusted partner and an organisation that is both outward looking and good to work with […] (Norwich City Council)

The reference to partnership and cooperation highlights that the representation of ‘ideal’ institutions also entails the representation of ‘ideal’ citizens. To actually be realized, the action taken by the institution must be accompanied and supported by citizens, who, in turn, become not only users of services but also actors, co-builders and propagators of change.

4.1  Actors and actions

At the linguistic level, textual analysis allows us to acknowledge that the partnership between institutions and citizens is confirmed and emphasized by the use of strategic pronominal references (Benveniste 1966; De Fina 1995; Wilson 1990). On the one hand, the exclusive we – and the attribute adjective ‘our’ – present the institution as committed to the development of positive actions and the implementation of projects:

At Chichester District Council, we try to make sure that you always receive a first class service. We hope you will never need to complain. (Chichester District Council, emphasis added)

We remained focused on our two main challenges… (Leicester City Council, emphasis added)

Exeter City Council intends to meet these challenges in the next 15 years. It will not be easy, the future will demand that we make things happen in the right way and we may have to adjust our plans in response to changing times and world events.

We will strive to do things well and look for ways to innovate and improve… (Norwich City Council, emphasis added) ← 16 | 17 →

On the other hand, the use of the inclusive we helps to construct a shared social identity in which both producers (institutions) and users (citizens) play a role, as seen in the following example:

The Core Strategy represents the Council’s vision and objectives to take us up to 2026 and […] by working together we can achieve them. (Exeter City Council, emphasis added)

Moreover, the pronoun you introduces a significant interpersonal component in the text (Halliday 1994: 69–158), a sign of a wider process of “informalization” (Wouters 1986; Featherstone 1991) and “conversationalization” (Fairclough 1995) of public discourse. In particular, directly addressing the reader with ‘you’ simply does not build a relationship of “equality, solidarity […] intimacy” (Fairclough 2001: 52), but also identifies readers as the ultimate addressees of the institution’s initiatives, as is apparent in the following example:

We hope you will never need to complain. (Chichester District Council, emphasis added)

More importantly, the fact that the pronoun you is the main deictic marker of dialogue strengthens the impression that the text producer is engaging the reader in a real dialogic conversation by means of questioning:

Would you like us to produce an Annual Report, available on our website, which would give a summary on our performance and our financial position? What would you like to see featured in future editions of an Annual Report? (Chichester District Council, emphasis added)

Defining issues of public concern in the public interest helps to create a real participatory culture for which the community becomes an actor of change in civic affairs:

[…] other services are not statutory, but the community, through its elected representatives, deem them to be highly desirable and want them carried out. (Chichester District Council, emphasis added)

The Core Strategy represents the Council’s vision and objectives to take us up to 2026 and I hope that, by working together we can achieve them. (Exeter City Council, emphasis added)

The city council has a civic leadership role and our elected councillors have a mandate and responsibility to represent and work on behalf of their communities for the broader interests of the city. (Norwich City Council, emphasis added)

Citizens are not seen as isolated entities, but as members of an interdependent community where transparency in public administration and urban democracy becomes possible. ← 17 | 18 →

We are keen for as many people as possible to get involved in the process and will be in contact with key groups including Parish and Town Councils.

We use a variety of methods to consult and involve the local community, such as surveys, focus groups, exhibitions or consultation leaflets. (Chichester District Council, emphasis added)

In addition to the aforementioned lexical item ‘together’, the emphasis on the concept of community and partnership is further strengthened by the frequent use of the terms everyone, each of us, and all, which express the idea of sharing resources, information, experiences:

The aim of sustainable development is to create a society where everyone has a good quality of life while maintaining and enhancing environmental resources.

Chichester District Wellbeing Programme has something for everyone. (Chichester District Council, emphasis added)

We must ensure everyone benefits from the new prosperity this Corporate Plan provides each of us with a direction of travel. And if we all pull in the same direction, we really can make Leicester more attractive for us all. (Leicester District Council, emphasis added)

Interestingly enough, a significant change has occurred over time in the level of the textual communication level by the city of Exeter. The local authority seems to fade away as a subject, leaving space for an operational presentation of the city that is prosperous, learning, accessible, safe, and a city of culture. In this sense, the changes made to the latest version of the text are particularly significant if compared to the previous ones. “A city where people are healthy and active” becomes “a city that is healthy and active”; “a city where the environment is cared for” becomes “a city that cares for the environment”, “a city where everyone has a home” becomes “a city with homes for everyone” (emphasis added). Therefore, the (ideal) city is mostly represented as an active entity, as performing an active role, or better, personified. In fact, the city has become the meeting point of institutions and citizens’ interests and needs.

4.2  Verbs

In line with the communication strategies outlined above, the use of the active voice is far more common than the passive. This stylistic choice avoids any impersonal or indirect connotation when it comes to describing the initiatives undertaken:

The council supports local businesses in a number of ways.

The service successfully runs throughout the District. ← 18 | 19 →

The Council plays a key role within the community, from offering community grants to helping to tackle anti-social behaviour. (Chichester District Council)

On the one hand, the institution announces a policy and, on the other, it ‘invites’ the community to agree with it by calling upon that community, the very people. Active verbal forms help construct a set of responsibilities for local authorities, but also for citizens, who are called upon to take individual and collective action. This textual strategy depicts responsibilities for success and failure as shared, and this contributes to building consensus by assuming that there is no difference between the interests and values of the population and those of the institution:

This is to assure us that the panel is as representative of the district as possible and that we get a wide range of people from the community. If you haven't received an invite to be on the panel you can still take part in other local consultation.

The community is thus seen as the true actor capable of influencing policies on the matter.

Such “empowerment” of community groups is expressed throughout the texts, making use of verbal forms such as “will give”, “will enable”, and “enabled”:

[we have] enabled more service users and carers to be involved in planning services. (Leicester City Council)

The use of the simple present tense has a dual function. It implies a categorical commitment of the producer to the truth of the proposition (Fairclough 1992), and this in turn supports a transparent perspective of the world, where facts are reported as categorical truths:

Exeter has much to be proud of in terms of its rich heritage as well as well-established arts, civic events and community-based activities.

Exeter is a great place to live and its people are proud of their city and are enthusiastic and energetic in their contributions to community life.

Exeter is a prosperous city and people want to keep it that way. […]

This provides the basis for building an inclusive city where everyone has a role to play and is encouraged to take part. (Exeter City Council)

It¹s a challenge, but we have a roadmap to follow: this Corporate Plan provides each of us with a direction of travel.

We want to try to make life better for every man, woman and child in a more welcoming city. (Leicester City Council)

Values focus on the present and future realization of outstanding performance, individual achievement, and community improvement. The modal verb will is ← 19 | 20 → used to highlight the strong desire to implement new future solutions to problems. This tense also serves a promotional purpose, as it is aimed at increasing the institution’s credibility and creating consensus, as the following excerpts show:

To achieve our strategic objectives we will…

[…] we will improve our services over the next five years to achieve our ambitious objectives. (Chichester District Council)

Better communication will help ensure that our services meet our citizens’ needs. (Leicester City Council)

In many areas our priorities will be achieved through working in partnership with others […] to deliver the very best we can for Norwich. (Norwich City Council)

Another modal verb that seems to occur frequently is can. As it is most frequently used, can seems to indicate ability (which we infer to suggest possibility) as a result of the roles the participants assume, projecting a cooperative, collaborative stance, as the following excerpts suggest:

Here you can discuss common issues and discover new solutions relevant to your particular business area. (Chichester District Council, emphasis added)

But we can’t make real and sustained progress on our own. Only by working with our partners and service users can we address the issues.

And if we all pull in the same direction, we really can make Leicester more attractive for us all. (Leicester City Council, emphasis added)

In many areas our priorities will be achieved through working in partnership with others […] to deliver the very best we can for Norwich. (Norwich City Council, emphasis added)

The promotional message conveyed by nominal and pronoun references, and by verbal structures and tenses is also reinforced by the use of predicates, which are typically associated with the council in the role of an actor. The most salient feature is represented by the choice of verbs belonging to the general semantic area of “improvement”, such as develop, innovate, regenerate, enhance, promote, build, cultivate, achieve, and so on:

The strength of the City Centre lies in its ability to support a wide range of retail uses […] that help to enhance the character and vibrancy of the centre. (Exeter City Council)

On the one hand, reference to the need to improve suggests that something was not adequate in the past.

Many milestones and targets set three years ago have been achieved. (Leicester City Council) ← 20 | 21 →

On the other hand, public institutions aim to highlight the continuity of positive performance and achievements reached from the beginning of their mandate. On a linguistic level, this is realized through the use of presupposition, by iterative verbs (Levinson 1983) such as continue, maintain and remain, as seen in the following examples:

We remain committed to our overall aim…

Our commitment to partnership working is stronger than ever, as we strive to maintain the path of continuous improvement we embarked upon

(Leicester City Council, emphasis added)

The City Council will continue to work with identified partners in provision to ensure that delivery of those key items continues (Exeter City Council, emphasis added)

We will continue to argue for a ‘fair deal’ for Norwich. (Norwich City Council, emphasis added)

Presupposition clarifies the validity of the implied statement, i.e., a standing level of good performance that is presented as shared opinion. Verbs expressing belief and commitment, such as consider, believe, want, aim, as well as create, ensure, improve, maximize, minimize are used to convey authoritativeness and a willingness to take on responsibilities, but also accountability for results:

The team coordinates all our corporate consultation and offers advice and guidance to services to maximise the benefits of consultation. (Chichester District Council, emphasis added)

Where there is a shared enforcement role or interest, either with other parts of the City Council, or with other agencies, we will work together to ensure consistency and a coordinated approach to make best use of available resources.

[…] we expect to meet the challenges […] in a way that minimises the impact on the environment and maximises the quality of life. (Norwich City Council, emphasis added)

We want to remain a 4 star council, continue to improve services and provide value for money to citizens. (Leicester City Council, emphasis added)

Actions that need to be taken in order to achieve results usually come in the form of a set of ‘priority areas’ or ‘corporate strategy pillars’, making use of a typical communicative strategy in business. This is the case in Chichester and Leicester, where their vision statements are broken down into priority themes: ← 21 | 22 →

  • Balancing the Local Housing Market

    We consider decent housing to be a basic and fundamental requirement in today’s society, and we recognise the relationships which exist between housing, personal health, education, employment and family stability[.] (Chichester District Council)
  • Improve quality and equality in teaching and learning

    Support children and parents, especially protecting the most vulnerable children. (Leicester City Council)

Imperative forms, which express advice, suggestions and recommendations, are used in the texts to encourage citizens to contribute to the improvement of their cities, thus reinforcing the dialogic component, as is visible in the following examples:

Please see the study in the related content section for more information.

Just click on the link to view the most recent edition.

Have your say!

To read the most recent Annual Letter for Chichester District Council […] please view the related document. (Chichester District Council, emphasis added)

4.3  Nouns and adjectives

The key verbs mentioned above (e.g. provide, ensure, increase, encourage, develop) are almost always associated with adjectives such as best, efficient, effective, good, value-for-money. This language serves a strategic, promotional function and stresses the agent’s active role.

The following example epitomizes the increased importance that is attached to achievement and top performance, which are placed at the same level as the traditional concern for addressing citizens’ needs by delivering quality services:

The fastest growing economy in the east of England, it is home to the headquarters of 50 major companies, is one of the top shopping destinations in the country, and is the regional cultural capital.

Growth will be used to bring benefits to local people, especially those in deprived communities, to regenerate communities, local economies, […] by creating safe, healthy, prosperous, sustainable and inclusive communities. (Norwich City Council, emphasis added)

The frequent use of implicitly or explicitly positive terms such as development, renewal and regeneration, often related to health, education, training, and work, as well as adjectives like welcoming, healthy, active, prosperous, attractive, vibrant to describe the city represent an obvious reference to ideal living conditions for citizens: ← 22 | 23 →

Attractive, safe and accessible parks and green spaces contribute to positive social, economic and environmental benefits improving public health, well-being and quality of life. (Chichester District Council)

Moreover, comparatives (e.g. better, higher, brighter) used in regard to the future of the city underline the institution’s commitment to provide services that can help improve quality of life.

One final but important observation to be made relates to the use of the website as a medium of communication. Despite the fact that public communication, being institutional, must have a primarily informational purpose, and therefore refers to the rational sphere of its recipients, great emphasis is also put on the visual presentation of the place.

Figure 1: Images displayed on Leicester City Council website.

image1

← 23 | 24 →

In the case of the figure above, the active role played by the institution (in this case, with reference to jobs opportunities and childcare facilities) is highlighted by being represented by its citizens. Images perform a strong emotional and evocative function and are not only meant to make the city more tangible, but also help underpin the logical arguments conveyed by the written text by enhancing, through the association of ideas, the interpretation process of the message.

5.  Conclusions

This analysis exemplifies and clarifies the intention – expressed in such acts – of institutional communication to build a society which, if not as perfect as utopian models, should at least be a better one. It should be a society able to recognize the needs of present and future generations: sustainable development, economic prosperity, cultural vitality, social cohesion.

The following excerpt from Norwich City Council website seems to best summarize the concept:

  • Everyone will have access to suitable housing that reflects their needs.
  • People will enjoy healthy, safe and fulfilling lifestyles, have equitable access to high standards of health and social care and make informed choices about their own health.
  • There will be excellent opportunities for lifelong learning and personal development and people will have high expectations for their own educational achievement to meet their needs, to contribute to the life of their communities, and to the economy.
  • The area will be renowned for its culture, creativity and spirituality, with high quality cultural and leisure opportunities that improve people’s well-being.

The reformed public sector struggles to combine “partnership” with competition, giving shape to an alternative perspective of publicness in which the system from the “public” becomes of “public utility”, and the state is no longer a “subject” but a “function”.

By using technological tools as facilitators in inclusion processes, this contemporary utopia is therefore an e-utopia, the project of an ideal and idealized, but also desirable and possible, democracy. It thus becomes an e-democracy where the utopia wants and manages, or may be able to be attained.

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1 <http://chichestercity.gov.uk/>, <http://exeter.gov.uk/>, <http://www.leicester.gov.uk/>, <http://www.greaternorwichgrowth.org.uk/>. All websites were accessed from 13/11/2014 to 16/10/2015.